Coach Hughes: Training for Older Riders RAAM
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Intelligent Cycling Training—Senior Cyclists

Training for Older Riders
Lekisch Trains for Race Across America

"When I did my first transcontinental in 1981, I finished in 12-1/2 days and I was toast! I was in my 20s and very fit. Peter’s ride is a terrific accomplishment!"—Lon Haldeman about Peter Lekisch, the first age 60+ rider to finish solo RAAM.

by Coach John Hughes

John Hughes is the author of Anti-Aging — 12 Ways to You Can Slow the Aging Process, of Distance Cycling and many articles on training, nutrition, psychology and medical issues for RoadBikeRider.com. More about Coach Hughes.
© John Hughes, All Rights Reserved

I particularly enjoy working with older athletes since figuring out effective training is more of a coaching challenge.

In 2001 Peter Lekisch became the first 60-year-old rider to finish the solo Race Across AMerica in 12 days 20 hours 50 minutes. I had the pleasure of coaching Peter. Many endurance riders are in our 50s and 60s. Although our goals are more modest than Peter’s, we can learn much from his training for RAAM.

Effects of Aging on our Bodies
A senior's body peaks when you are in your 20s and then start to decline. Although the rate of decline may be less in active people, overall seniors slow down. The changes include:

  • The amount of oxygen the heart can deliver to the working muscles—VO2 max—declines due to a reduced maximum heart rate and decreased stroke volume, the amount that the heart pumps with each stroke.
  • As we age we lose muscle mass. Fast twitch fibers (recruited for heavy workouts like climbing) are lost faster than slow twitch fibers, because we rarely use the former in daily activities. We also lose muscle flexibility and range of motion. Fortunately, the remaining muscles’ ability to process oxygen and deliver power is unchanged.
  • Due to reduced elasticity of the lung’s tissues and increased resistance in the airways, maximal expiratory ventilation declines with age.
  • Lactic acid, produced by anaerobic riding, is not dissipated as rapidly in older individuals and hard efforts are more difficult to maintain.
  • Older riders are less tolerant of heat extremes and sweat less in hot, dry conditions.
  • The older cyclist produces more urine during exercise, meaning reduced blood volume and more time off the bike.
  • Aging weakens the immune system and older riders may be more susceptible to colds and overtraining.

Although some decline is inevitable, studies comparing active and inactive individuals suggest that much of the slowing with age is a result of individual decisions. About half of the performance decline is due to inactivity and one-quarter is the result of less intensity during training. Thus, the key to maintaining vigor is to ride frequently and intensely. For example, one study of active racers showed that 40 km time trial times declined an average of only 20 seconds per year after age 35. (Friel, J., Cycling Past 50, Champaign, IL, 1998, pp. 4-17)

Training the Aging Body
I started working with Peter Lekisch as part of Team Alaska, four 50+ athletes preparing for relay RAAM in 2000. He was already very fit. He had won many national championships as a masters XC skier and qualified for solo RAAM at the Midnight Sun 600 km. In 1999 he completed Paris-Brest-Paris.

After completing Team RAAM in June, 2000, Peter spent a couple of months fishing and riding for fun and then started training for solo RAAM in September, 2000. The principles we applied are:

Train Consistently: When Peter started training for RAAM he had 40 weeks to prepare, during which time he’d ride about 10,000 miles. As noted above, in older adults, the components of fitness decline during periods of inactivity. So, we can’t afford much down time. We need to be active throughout the year.

Rest Frequently: According to Friel “the most important pieces of the training puzzle for the serious past-50 rider are rest and recovery.” (Friel p. 133) Getting adequate rest is a problem for most ultra cyclists. The volume of miles we ride can be very time-consuming and some of us are training our minds and bodies to continue to ride without adequate rest. Yet, during training rest is essential. The body only produces the human growth hormone (HGH) necessary for muscle repair and growth during sleep. As we age, the production of HGH diminishes. Riders training seriously should sleep at least seven hours every night, and perhaps add a cat nap if nighttime sleep is insufficient.

Allowing adequate time between challenging rides is also important. Unless there is a specific training purpose (e.g., simulating a tour), allow 48 to 72 hours of recovery between challenging rides. During the Peak phase of his training, Peter would do three hard rides a week: a 12- to 24-hour endurance ride, a 3- to 6-hour tempo ride (as hard a pace as he could maintain without going anaerobic), and a 1.5- to 2-hour intensity ride (warm-up, anaerobic hill work and cool-down). The other four days were active recovery or rest.

As Peter ramped up his training, every fourth week was an easier recovery week with 25% less volume than the preceding week. During the 40 weeks of training, we also included complete one-week breaks.

Workout Moderately: During the fall, Peter started working out about 12 hours per week, while he wound down his law practice, retired, and moved to Fredricksburg, TX in the hill country. We slowly increased his training volume until he peaked at about 30 hours per week in May. Working out 30 hours a week doesnŐt sound like moderation! The key to moderation is not low total volume, but moderate increases.

During the Base period, we increased Peter’s volume by only 15% per month, so he was able to adapt. During the Build phase, when he was doing intervals twice a week, we increased the volume by only 5% per month so he could adapt to the higher intensity. Even at Hell Week, Peter did not ride every century. Rather, over the eight days his program was: one 150 mile ride, three centuries, one five hour tempo ride, and three 50 mile easier rides.

Exercise Frequently: Studies show that if you already have high aerobic fitness (like Peter), riding four days a week is sufficient to maintain that fitness; however, if you are trying to improve, riding five to six days a week yields the fastest improvement. (Friel, p 34-35)

In Peter’s case in the base period he rode five days a week: a long ride, building up slowly to a double century by mid-February, a two- to four-hour tempo ride, and three shorter, easy rides He also did strength training three days a week, took a yoga class twice a week, and stretched and worked on his core muscles four days a week.

Work on Your Limiters: Older athletes are generally also very busy; we don’t have time to waste in training. We need to spend our limited time working on our specific weaknesses.

During Team RAAM Peter had some trouble with the sustained climbs in the Rockies. When he moved to Texas, he bought an hypobaric chamber so that he could sleep at 9,000 feet! The result was a slow increase in his hematocrit. Then in May he spent 10 days in Colorado, learning to pace himself on long climbs.

Train Specifically: As noted above, with age and inactivity, we lose muscle mass and flexibility. Peter’s base training program called for 45 minutes of strength training three days a week. He usually did more exercises and sets than I asked for, spending 60 to 90 minutes in the gym each session. He also religiously did his abdominal, back and stretching exercises.

Ride Intensely: According to Friel, the single most important variable is how hard you ride. The greatest improvements in aerobic capacity come from riding intensely. (Friel, p. 35-36)

Peter did four months of progressive intensity. Starting in February, we added one day a week of speed-work to Peter’s workouts. Since Peter lived in the hill country, this was easy. He’d warm up for 30 minutes, then spend 45 minutes climbing near his lactate threshold and recovering on the descents, and then cool down as he rode home. After a month he doubled the frequency, doing speedwork twice a week. The third month, I increased the intensity, asking him to climb above his lactate threshold. The fourth month, he cut back to one intensity ride a week as we added 24-hour rides to his regimen.

In March, Peter began riding a 16-mile time trial each month to measure his progress. By May his speed had increased from 21.5 to 23.1 mph and his average HR increased from 132 to 140 bpm. The higher sustainable HR means that he could put out more power before at lower heart rates before going anaerobic.

When he started paying closer attention to his HR monitor on intensity days, Peter found it annoying to have to watch the monitor during his other rides. We agreed that as long as he stayed at a conversational pace he didn’t need to use his HR monitor on long rides.

For more on intensity see my eArticle Intensity—How to Plan & Gauge the Most Beneficial Training Efforts

Eat Moderately: People who remain sedentary put on fat as they age. Even active individuals tend to put on body fat. Since VO2 max is a function of body weight, VO2 max also declines. Peter had been conscientious over the years to eat moderately. At 180 lbs, he was very lean and muscular, and an excellent climber.

Practice Skills: As we age and physiological changes take place, we need to ride smarter. My training notes to Peter were filled with reminders to drink at least 24 ounces of sports drink every hour on the bike, to eat at least 300 calories every hour, and to practice minimizing time off the bike during his long training rides. As we fatigue, we revert to habits. So during training rides Peter built the habits he would need during RAAM.

Starting with his February double century, after each of his long training rides, Peter and I would chat about what had happened and what he should change for the next long ride. Each of these rides was an experiment, to learn as much as possible before the main event.

To continue to hone his skills, Peter rode three 24-hour training rides to prepare for RAAM. The first two rides, April 14 and May 12, were in the Texas hill country. Ideally, the first ride would have been later in April; however, Peter’s wife came to visit and we declared a recovery week. The third ride, May 29, was in Colorado and Wyoming, including climbing an 11,000 ft. pass.

Taper Effectively: Adequate rest is important during training and becomes critical prior to the event, so that the athlete arrives at the start fresh and ready to ride. Friel notes that, once a rider has achieved the desired level of fitness, decreases in weekly mileage and/or number of rides per week wonŐt lead to a loss of performance. But a decrease in intensity—time spent near the lactate threshold—will lead to decline in output. (Friel pp. 79-80)

We had planned a 2.5 week Taper for Peter. Each week would include a century, a two-hour tempo ride, and two short intensity workouts. However, his saddle sores flared up after his last 24-hour ride and he chose—correctly—to do minimal riding and let his buttocks heal up.

Manage Stress: Overtraining is the result of the total stresses that a cyclist is subject to: family needs, work pressures and career expectations are often high. Training seriously is just the final component that may produce overload and breakdown.

Peter was fortunate: he could retire and devote most of his time and energy to preparing for RAAM “just like it was my job.” If we want to train effectively for ultra events, we need to manage all that aspects of our lives that can potentially add up to a severe overload.

After finishing RAAM, Peter said the “training schedule gave me a focus for the period, week and the day. I enjoyed ticking off the completion of the daily workout and reporting to you at the end of the week. To prepare for RAAM, you need to be focused.

“Secondly, the schedule built up my confidence. I knew that I was getting stronger because of the time trial tests. I knew also that I was handling the duration of the long rides better and better. At the end of the 40 weeks, I considered a century to be a fairly easy six hour ride.

“The training got me where I needed to be, but age was a big factor. Everyone deteriorates during RAAM; I deteriorated faster. ”

Most of us wish that by age 60 we will have deteriorated as little as Peter!

Healthy Cycling Past 50—my 17-page eArticle available for $4.99 from RoadBikeRider.com.

Peter Lekisch’s Macrocycle
Preparation: Sept. 11 - Nov. 19 (10 weeks)
The purpose was to prepare the body to train by building aerobic endurance and specific muscle endurance. During this phase he rode three or four days a week, lifted weights three days a week (high volume, low resistance), and stretched four days a week. His primary goal was to ride 1,500 miles (including trainer miles). He averaged 12 hours a week the first month and then 15 hours a week after he retired.

Break: Nov. 20 - 26 (1 week)
Mental and physical time off before Base training, timed to coincide with his move to Texas

Base Building: Nov. 27 - Feb. 18 (12 weeks)
The purpose was to increase aerobic capacity, fat-burning efficiency, cycling endurance and muscle size and strength. Peter rode four or five days a week, lifted three days a week (moderate volume and higher resistance, and stretched four days a week. His goals were to ride a total of 3,300 miles and to complete a double century by the end of Base training. He averaged 18 hours per week for first four weeks, 21 hours per week the next four weeks and 24 hours per week the last four weeks.

Break: Feb. 19 - 25 (1 week)
A break before Intensity training.

Build: Feb, 26 - April 22 (8 weeks)
Having built sufficient endurance, the purpose of the Build phase is to increase the anaerobic threshold, glycogen-burning efficiency, cycling speed and muscle power. Peter rode six or seven days a week (including two days of active recovery). Instead of strength training in the gym, he rode tempo and intensity workouts in the hills two or three days a week to build cycling-specific power. His goals were to ride 3,100 miles and to complete a 250 mile ride and two 24 hour rides. He averaged 25 hours per week for the first four weeks and 26 hours a week for the second four weeks.

Break: April 23 - 29 (1 week)
A break before before Peaking training.

Peaking: April 30 - May 27 (4 weeks)
The purpose of the Peaking phase was to combine his endurance base and short-course speed into fast, distance training to peak for RAAM. Peter continued to ride six or seven days a week, with rides varying significantly in distance and intensity. His goals were to ride 1,900 miles and to complete a third 24-hour ride. He averaged about 31 hours a week.

Taper: May 28 - June 16 (2.5 weeks)
Purpose: store physical and psychological energy for the race.

Originally printed in UltraCycling

Anti-Aging — 12 Ways to You Can Slow the Aging Process. 106 pages for $14.99 from RoadBikeRider.com

Elizabeth Wicks broke the senior women’s age 65 to 69 record at Calvin’s 12-Hour Challenge in 2013 and the W70-74 record in 2014. I coached Wicks. Here is her training program.

More Information

Cycling Past 50. A 4-article bundle of 98 pages for older cyclists for just $15.96, a 20% discount from RoadBikeRider.com. The bundle includes:

  1. Healthy Cycling Past 50. What happens as you age and how to incorporate cycling and other exercise activities into your daily life to stay healthy and active for many years. Includes three balanced exercise programs for older cyclists.
  2. Off-Season Conditioning Past 50. How to best work on your off-season conditioning given the physiological changes of growing older. Includes two 12-week programs for older cyclists.
  3. Healthy Nutrition Past 50. What an older cyclist should eat and drink to support both a healthy lifestyle and continuing performance.
  4. Performance Cycling Past 50. How older cyclists can train to achieve more specific cycling goals given the physiological changes of aging.

Cycling Past 60. A 2-article bundle of 47 pages for senior cyclists for just $8.98, a 10% discount from RoadBikeRider.com. The bundle includes:

  1. Cycling Past 60, Part 1: For Health. If a senior exercises correctly, you can slow the effects of aging; if you exercise incorrectly, you can speed up aging. Includes three well-balanced exercise programs for senior cyclists.
  2. Cycling Past 60, Part 2: For Recreation. Builds on the information in Part 1 and uses the concept of “Athletic Maturity” to design six more rigorous programs for more athletically mature seniors.

Cycling Past 50, 60 and Beyond. A 3-article bundle of 100 pages for seniors for just $13.50, a 20% discount from RoadBikeRider.com. The bundle includes:

  1. Fit for Life. The article shows how you can exercise in different ways to be fitter for life as a senior and have fun. It provides a variety of exercise options available to you to strengthen your body's functions that keep you alive and help to keep you fit for life, including the aerobic, skeletal, muscular, neural, core and balance systems.
  2. Peak Fitness The article contains four specific programs for seniors to improve fitness in one or more of the following ways: Improved Endurance, More Power, Faster Speed and / or Higher Aerobic Capacity (VO2 max.)
  3. Training with Intensity. The article describes five progressively harder levels of training for seniors and gives 3 to 5 examples each of structured and unstructured workouts for each level of training, a total of almost 40 workouts.